Beyond the Quarterbacks: Why The NFL Draft Really Matters

We know the top two picks. But how will the rest of the NFL draft shake out?

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Getty Images; AP

Andrew Luck, left, and Robert Griffin III, are expected to be the first to players selected in the 2012 NFL Draft.

Long before April, it was clear that two quarterbacks would go one and two in the NFL draft. The only question was where. One was a dependable, steady student of the game who came just a couple of wins shy of a national championship; the other was a physical phenom who led his school to its most successful season in decades. Sitting on the first pick: the Indianapolis Colts.

About a week before the 1998 NFL draft, I made a bet with my friends that if the Colts took Peyton Manning, they’d be sorry. Ryan Leaf was too good of an athlete, I argued, and with NFL coaching, he would only get better. Fast forward 14 years: Manning is a sure Hall-of-Famer with a Super Bowl and four MVP trophies; Leaf was back in the news last month for charges of burglary and drug possession. After four disastrous seasons, he threw his last NFL pass more than 11 years ago.

So how did the Colts get it so right and the Chargers so wrong? Can one player really make that much of a difference, for better or for worse, in an NFL franchise? Team executives grapple with those types of questions every year in the months leading up to April, and this year the focus has been on Stanford’s Andrew Luck and Baylor’s Robert Griffin III. Much like in 1998, the two quarterbacks are expected to go one and two when the draft begins today in New York City, and the Colts took much of the drama out of the equation by announcing officially on Tuesday what nearly everyone expected, that Luck would be their pick.

(MORE: The Overhyped NFL Draft – Are We Nuts?)

And so the spotlight would, for all intents and purposes, shift to the Washington Redskins, but there will be equally little drama. The Redskins told Griffin if he was available with the No. 2 pick, they would take him, but as Griffin points it out, nothing is official until today. So why all the fuss, really? It’s because of what Washington had to do in order to move up to the second slot to draft Griffin, giving the St. Louis Rams four high-level draft picks in a move that led some sports columnists to question the sanity of mortgaging the future on one player, no matter how much promise he holds. “When you miss on somebody that’s a high pick, you lose your pick the following year,” says Gil Brandt, who served as vice president for player personnel for the Dallas Cowboys for nearly three decades. “That’s a double whammy.”

There have been plenty of draft busts–remember Aundray Bruce, or Todd Marinovich? (Exactly) The real danger is when you give up a great deal of talent in trades and your draft choice tanks. If you remember your history, the San Diego Chargers traded two first round picks, a second round pick and a three-time Pro Bowler to the Arizona Cardinals just to move up a single slot, which guaranteed they would get the leftover of the Manning-Leaf duo. Leaf’s spectacular flame out set the Chargers back years. But here is where the historical comparisons will likely end. “In life, I guess nothing is a sure thing,” Brandt says. “I think that Griffin is the closest thing to a sure thing and I feel the same way about Luck. What you have to understand with Leaf: it wasn’t his ability, it was his work habits. Both of these players have excellent work habits and character.”

While Luck and Griffin have grabbed much of the attention leading up to the draft, Brandt sees several teams that have a chance to help their prospects this week. St. Louis now has the sixth pick of the first round, plus the first and seventh picks in the second. They’ll be looking to give quarterback Sam Bradford more weapons. Bradford, who was sacked 36 times last year, will be taking his snaps from Scott Wells, who played the last eight seasons with the Green Bay Packers. “St. Louis helped themselves immensely,” Brandt says. “They had some cap money and were able to go out and sign players like Wells.”

With the top of the dance card set, the real fun will begin with the 4th pick. Most analysts expect the Minnesota Vikings to take tackle Matt Kalil from USC with the No. 3 pick, but then things get more wide open. With the fourth pick, the Cleveland Browns might take Oklahoma State wide receiver Justin Blackmon, but some analysts think they might go with fireplug Alabama running back Trent Richardson, the consensus top back in this year’s field. Cleveland also has the 22nd pick of the first round, thanks to a trade from the Falcons last year, and they’re expected to shore up the running back and wide receiver positions.

Don’t ignore the late rounds. Tom Brady is perhaps the most famous late-round pick ever, but even if teams don’t find the next Hall of Fame quarterback, they can fix weak spots with these players. The Colts and Redskins they think they’ve found field generals to take them to the Super Bowl. All that’s left is to make it official.

(MORE: “Suck For Luck”: Why NFL Fans Can Root Against Their Teams)